Fires break records, displace First Nations


Last updated 11/22/2021 at 10:36am

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Smoke from several forest fires near the Ontario-Manitoba border forced evacuations of four First Nations in Manitoba.

TORONTO, Ont.-In the summer of 2021, Ontario forest fires burned a record area of land. Nearly 800,000 hectacres of land burned in northwestern Ontario, which surpassed the record set 26 years ago. Besides the destroyed forestry, more than 3,000 people were evacuated, according to Ontario's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES).

The 793,000 hectares of land that were burned cover a span larger than the Greater Toronto Area and surpassed the 1995 record by 80,000 hectares. All but 13,000 hectares of land burned in the 2021 season were in the northwest, the AFFES said in late October.

Two fires were responsible for most of the areas affected. The Kenora 51 fire topped 200,000 hectares, and exceeded the average annual amount of burned land in the entire province over the last decade. It became became the largest wildfire recorded in Ontario.

Western areas of the region typically receive between 270 and 300 millimetres of rain during May, June and July. But the area is estimated to have received less than half of the expected rainfall amounts, in some places less than 100 millimetres. The drought-like conditions paired with high winds resulted in large fires that spread quickly. Dry conditions were at their peak in mid-July, when some days saw more than 100 active fires burning across northwestern Ontario. On July 20, a single-day total of 80 new fires were confirmed across the region.

Several First Nations-Poplar Hill, Deer Lake, Pikangikum, Keewaywin, Cat Lake, North Spirit Lake, Koocheching and Wabaseemong-were partially or fully evacuated due to the threat of fire or because of thick smoke. To help in the firefighting efforts in northwestern Ontario, in some locations, provincial bans were placed on outdoor burning, including campfires, from the end of June until September. Industrial activity was also restricted to try to prevent human-caused fires.

While some municipalities in the northwest, including Thunder Bay, Kenora and Sioux Lookout, were able to take in evacuees, hundreds of people were sent to destinations up to thousands of kilometres away.

Community members from Deer Lake, a remote community in the far northwestern corner of the province, were flown to the far east part of Ontario in Cornwall, limited to a single suitcase to bring for their stay. Other cities like Sudbury, London and the GTA became host communities.

The province brought in nearly 500 firefighters from outside Ontario, including from parts of Canada and Australia, Mexico and the United States.

While many provinces sent reinforcements, others were in the middle of battling their own fires. Manitoba and Saskatchewan each faced serious wildfire situations.

While the Ontario fires resulted in scorched landscapes, the province avoided the destruction seen in other places across Canada. This summer, for instance, British Columbia was under a heat dome that resulted in the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Canada, which caused a ferocious wildfire in late June.

Jian Wang, a professor in the faculty of natural resources management at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, says one way to control wildfires and protect places where people live is to manage the fuel.

"If you can have a one- or two-kilometre belt-that's called a safety belt-you can really manage that," he told CBC News, proposing communities cut an area immediately surrounding their boundary.

Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry

Forest fires burned Nearly 800,000 hectares of land across Ontario in 2021, the most on record in the province in a single year.

He also says Indigenous cultural burns have also been identified as a way to help manage that fuel. Wang says policymakers should put more effort towards considering how to address fire risk before there are flames. He told CBC News, "You spend lots of money trying to stop the fire. That's too late."


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